Although I don’t like to brag about it, I am the 78,456th most famous man in Spain.
So when the publication El Confidencial asked to interview me about the tortuous process of obtaining a Spanish driver’s license as an expat, how could I refuse them the “Sally D. Bump?!”
Besides, I had already written extensively on this topic in a 2004 blog post–which, I guess, makes me a leading authority on failing the exam.
You can read the El Confidencial article HERE. Check it out! You need to practice your Spanish.
[Note: My cousin, Tony, and I tag-teamed the writing of this eulogy for his father (my uncle), Sam Oliva. Tony delivered the eulogy at the memorial gathering, and it is therefore written in his voice.]
A man’s legacy is not determined by the amount of wealth or possessions he accumulated. It’s determined by the number of lives he changed.
My dad—“Mr. O”… “Uncle Sammy”… “Professor Big-a-nose”… “Galloping Groovy, the Gourmet Weatherman”…changed a lot of lives.
My dad’s own life was full of interesting experiences, artistic accomplishments, and enormous influence.
He was born in Utica, NY to first generation Southern Italians. Utica is a formerly thriving industrial city in upstate NY that was home to a huge Italian-American population—90% of which seemed to be an aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend of his.
Growing up in Utica, he had two passions: Food, and music.
The food passion was by stroke of luck. His mother was one of the best home cooks in central NY. She spoiled him rotten with a childhood full of tomato pie, pusties, homemade ravioli, fried zucchini blossoms, the onion/olive/anchovy calzone called “Fucazzo,” and most importantly…the Oliva family’s made-from-scratch, meat-heavy macaroni sauce.
If his passion for food was by stroke of luck, his passion for music was driven by talent, intelligence, and relentless practice.
He put down his fork and picked up a string bass. Inspired heavily by his musical idol, Paul McCartney, his string bass morphed into a bass guitar. Several bass guitars, in fact. And he played those bass guitars for a number of renowned central NY bands—most notably, the “Four Syns,” “Aerodrome,” and the jazz/rock fusion band “Fuel.”
He graduated from Proctor High School at age 17, and left home to become a touring musician. This was a gutsy move; and not always a smart one. He once spent the night in a Florida jail when local police discovered that the youthful-looking electric bassist on the tavern’s stage was, in fact, still a youth. True story.
He did session work during those early years with a number of major acts—including the Beach Boys, the Mills Brothers, and Daryl Dragon from the Captain & Tennille.
How many of you can say that you’ve met The Captain?
And, of course…after moving to Nashville, he spent two decades playing in Boots Randolph’s band.
He was a private pilot for many years, and a commercial pilot with Catskills Airline for a few. His biggest and most important vocation, however, was as a middle and high school music teacher.
But he was more than just a teacher. He was a mentor. A role model. A challenger of mediocrity. He was a builder and shaper of young men and women—coaxing them, cajoling them, bullying them to be better than they knew or believed they could be. And he did it in a way that still seemed fun.
When it was announced on Facebook two weeks ago that his journey was coming to an end, nearly 150 former students and colleagues—some from as far away as California—poured into the air park for one last class with Mr. O.
Most of you have read the avalanche of Facebook tributes that followed. But in case you haven’t, here’s a small sampling:
- “Mr. Oliva was hands down the BEST music teacher I could’ve asked for. Starting from being a complete violin noob to first chair in one year. He taught me so much.”
- “One of the most honorable, loving, gifted, smart men I have ever met. He touched so many lives.”
- “It still amazes me how well his kids played despite being in the type of high school where string programs rarely thrive.”
- “He was my orchestra teacher from 7th-12th grades and taught me how to play the violin, but more importantly he taught me about life.”
- Mr. O wasn’t just a music teacher to me. He was a father figure in my life who cared deeply for his students’ safety and well-being.”
- “[He] did more in [his] time on this earth than most will ever do. [He] left a legacy of musicians and music lovers.”
- “He has taught me so much more than how to read notes and tune a violin. He taught me that music can heal the deepest wounds and that our orchestra was a family.”
- “Some people have such an impact on your life and the way you conduct yourself in your career. I only had the pleasure to work beside him for four years, but the impact he had on me and so many others has been great. He knew how to take care of me while at the same time treat me as an equal colleague even though I had nowhere near the experience or cred that he did. The lessons he taught his students were life changing. The lessons he taught me were life-giving. If I can be half the teacher he was, I will be doing well.”
- “He is a big reason why I am the person I am today. When life got crazy around me and school was challenging, I couldn’t wait to go to my Orchestra class and forget about everything and play music. I appreciate music so much more because of him.”
- “We went through some super awkward phases together, and this man walked us through all of them. He taught us so much more than music. He invested his time, energy, his whole heart, and even his own finances into us. He got up at dawn to meet me at All-State auditions for moral support. He gave me private lessons after school to prepare me for those auditions. He took us on adventures and gave us experiences we wouldn’t have had otherwise, like convincing our principal that a trip to Six Flags was educational, and getting into a real recording studio to record a CD. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
- “We may not have come from much, but [he] brought us much joy through music. [He] helped us discover our abilities to persevere and succeed not only in music but in life. We will never forget the care [he] showed us or the values [he] instilled in us and will cherish our memories of [him] forever.
- “I was never in Samuel Oliva’s class, but we taught together for seven years. I cannot even begin to describe how much of my teaching style comes from Sam mentoring me all those years. He was a fantastic musician, and was so skilled at building relationships with his kids. I was always amazed at how he could hold his students to such high standards and make them love every second of it along the way. My students may never know, but he is still having an influence on THEM because of what he taught me.”
- “[He was] so much more than a teacher. [He was] a friend, confidant, mentor but most of all [he was] a parent to so many of us. No matter how irritating we all were, [he] never gave up on any of us. [He] loved unconditionally. Some of my best childhood memories are with [him] and all the class trips we went on.”
- “I only pray that my son is lucky enough to have a teacher who invests in him half as much as Mr. O did all of us.”
So…as I said at the beginning…a man’s legacy is not determined by the amount of wealth or possessions he accumulated. It’s determined by the number of lives he changed.
In this respect, my dad’s legacy is enormous. “Mr. Holland’s Opus” ain’t got nothin’ on “Mr. O’s Opus.” “Jerry’s Kids” ain’t got nothin’ on “Sammy’s Kids.”
I don’t know if my dad realized the enormity of his legacy until just a few weeks ago.
Let’s be honest. He often complained about the frustrations of teaching. He often lamented that he never got to pilot 747s from Nashville to Italy and back. But the life he lived was far more valuable than that of any airline pilot—because spread throughout the world are hundreds of former students that are better musicians, better teachers, better parents, better human beings than they otherwise would’ve been. All—or, at least, in large part—due to my dad.
This, I know, he finally realized in the end.
So…if I had a glass of Scotch in my hand (and believe me, I will before this day is over), I’d raise it in celebration of Professor Big-a-nose. The body is gone, but the man lives on.
He lives on through me.
Through his step-children.
Through his nieces and nephews [ESPECIALLY SAL, WHO IS HIDING IN A CONFERENCE ROOM WRITING THIS WHEN HE IS SUPPOSED TO BE WORKING].
Through his hundreds of former students.
And through every one of you that sets aside that jar of Ragu and takes the time to make the Oliva family’s meat-heavy macaroni sauce from scratch.
The word “tortilla” in Spanish of the Americas means a thin, starchy, floppy disc that keeps the contents of a 950 calorie burrito from exploding onto your lap. In Spain, however, it means something entirely different.
“Tortilla,” in the land of Cervantes, means a thick, Frittata-like, potato and egg omelette. It is, quite arguably, the greatest coupling of protein and carbohydrates since Five Guys’ bacon double cheeseburger with fries.
More so than Paella—which, although sophisticated and widely known, is really a regional (i.e., Valencian) dish—Tortilla Espanola is *the* national dish of Spain. Nearly every bar throughout the country will have a Tortilla Espanola sitting at room temperature on the counter—a hunk of which will likely be served as a tapa to accompany your glass of beer or wine.
But making Tortilla Espanola at home poses two challenges: (a) peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes is tedious, messy, and time-consuming; and (b) getting the Tortilla’s center to cook through without scorching the surface is tricky.
But I’ve cracked both codes through research, trial, and error. Lots of error. And my now-perfected method is so quick and effortless that we often make Tortilla Espanola as a weeknight dinner—much to the delight of our children, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian…Spanish and non-Spanish.
So…what are the keys to my easy and fool-proof Tortilla? There are two: (a) use frozen French fries; and (b) start the Tortilla on the stovetop, but finish it in the oven.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know. No Spanish grandmother would ever, in a million years, use frozen French fries to make a Tortilla Espanola. Then, again…no Spanish grandmother understands the difference between a private message and a Facebook post. Just sayin’.
Progress waits for no granny. So…vamos, chicos! Let’s make…
NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S TORTILLA ESPANOLA!
(As bastardized by a lazy-yet-talented, US-born, former expat)
1 lbs. Frozen French fries
1 Onion (sliced thinly)
2 Garlic cloves (minced)
Shredded cheese (Cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Queso Cotija, or whatever the hell you like)
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
10″ non-stick, oven-safe skillet
Step 1: Spread frozen fries in a single layer across cookie sheet and bake in oven til crisp and golden brown. 20-25 minutes (flipping once) at 450F usually does the trick, but check the baking instructions on the back of the bag. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.
Step 2: Crack eggs into a large bowl, sprinkle with salt, and whisk until combined and smooth.
Step 3: Add EVOO to skillet on stovetop at medium heat. When EVOO shimmers, add onions to skillet, sprinkle with salt, and saute til soft.
Step 4: Add garlic to softened onions and saute for thirty seconds more. Don’t burn the garlic. Burnt garlic tastes like mierda.
Step 5: Add the onions, garlic, fries, and a big handful of shredded cheese to the bowl with beaten eggs. Mix with a wooden spoon to combine evenly, hacking at the fries to break them up a bit.
Step 6: Add more EVOO to skillet on stovetop at medium heat. When EVOO shimmers, add egg mixture. Shake skillet briefly to even out egg mixture, and cook until bottom and sides just begin to set (perhaps 30-45 seconds).
Step 7: Transfer skillet into 450F oven. Bake on middle rack for 15 minutes.
Step 8: Remove skillet from oven. Don’t forget to wear an oven mitt, or you will experience Raiders of the Lost Ark déjà vu. Put a large plate on top of the skillet, flip, and lift skillet so that Tortilla sits on plate.
Step 9: Slide Tortilla onto a cooling rack. Let cool to room temperature. Some uncooked egg may drip to the countertop, but don’t worry. The center of the Tortilla will continue to cook and solidify as it rests.
Step 10: When cooled to room temperature-ish, cut Tortilla into wedges or squares (depending on your aesthetic sensibilities).
Just to make this bastardization of a classic even more blasphemous, I like to eat it with a Salsa Brava dipping sauce made by mixing ketchup, mayo, and Sriracha sauce.
Grandma wouldn’t approve of that, either.
My uncle vacationed in Italy a few years ago, and was disappointed with the food. He considered it bland compared to the “Italian” food to which he was accustomed in the US.
I wasn’t surprised by his conclusion. In fact, I think that the reasons behind it are pretty simple. My uncle is Italian-American, and he was eating in the land of Italian-Italians.
Contrary to what many in the US believe, Italian-Italians and Italian-Americans are different beasts. And it’s not just because the latter has a propensity to scratch their crotches in public venues. The differences go right down to the food.
Italian-Italians like their sauces to have clean, fresh flavors. Italian-Americans like them to have intense, meaty (and especially, porky) flavors. Admittedly, I’m generalizing–but this has been my observation.
I’ve eaten in Italy many times, and I never encountered a sauce laden with meatballs, pork ribs, sausage, and beef hunks—in other words, the sauce on which my uncle and I were raised in Utica, NY.
No…nearly every tomato-based sauce that I’ve eaten in Italy tasted mainly of—hold onto your hats—TOMATO!
Sure, you can find sauces with additional flavorings tossed in (e.g., Bolognese with its ground beef, Puttanesca with its capers and spicy peppers, etc.), but these seem to be the exceptions rather than the norm.
So it’s a matter of apples and oranges. Personally, I’d be happy to eat a big bowl of either. But since not everyone is as flexible and open-minded as I am, I feel compelled to provide these folk with some sort of public service.
As such…I list below the recipe for my mother’s (and grandmother’s) classic, meat-based, Italian-American “Macaroni Sauce.” “Sunday Gravy,” if you’re from Chicago.
If you are Italian-American, planning a trip to Italy, and fear that your palate might be repulsed by the taste of an unadorned tomato, then you should pack a tub of this sauce in dry ice and wedge it into your suitcase.
Just don’t be scratching your crotch while standing in the TSA line.
OLIVA FAMILY’S MACARONI SAUCE
56 oz. Crushed Tomato
56 oz. Tomato Puree
24 oz. Tomato Paste
Salt & Pepper (to taste)
Big handful of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (2 hands full if you’re Donald Trump)
3-4 cloves of Garlic
Water (no more than 28 oz.)
Red wine for deglazing (if needed)
1 lbs. Italian Sausage (recipe below, or store bought if you have a life outside the kitchen)
1 lbs. Pork “Country Ribs” (salted and peppered)
1 lbs. Beef Chuck (cut into cubes, salted and peppered)
Meatballs (recipe below)
1 lbs. Skirt Steak (cut across the grain into one inch wide strips, salted and peppered)
Fresh Parsley and/or Basil (chopped)
Step 1: In a large sauté pan, fry meats (separately, in batches) in olive oil at medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Transfer browned batches of all meats (except meatballs) into large kettle (off heat). Set fried meatballs aside in the refrigerator until Step 5.
Step 2: Briefly fry garlic in the same oil and rendered fats in which the meats were fried. Be careful not to burn the garlic.
Step 3: Add tomato paste and (stirring frequently) fry on medium heat until darkened, but not burned. Transfer fried tomato paste and garlic into the kettle with the meat. If any browned bits cling to the bottom of the sauté pan, then deglaze with red wine, reduce, and transfer to the kettle.
Step 4: Add crushed tomato, tomato puree, cheese, and water to kettle. Cook on low heat until the sauce gets hot, then simmer on lowest heat possible for at least 6 hours. Stir frequently, being very careful not to allow the sauce on the bottom of the pot to scorch.
Step 5: Add meatballs and continue to simmer. Stir frequently yet gently, so as not to disintegrate the meatballs. Your goal is for the all the meat to be tender and nearly falling apart. Total simmering time (from start to finish) can be anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. As my grandmother would say, “Just taste it.” Sprinkle with parsley and/or basil when serving.
Note: My preference is to double this recipe. Seriously…if you’re going to trash an entire weekend making sauce, you might as well make a ton and freeze it in batches. It freezes very well, thank god.
¾ lbs. Ground Beef
¾ lbs. Ground Pork
3-4 slices of Bread (soaked in water and squeezed)
Salt & Pepper
¼ cup Grated Cheese
Step 1: Mix ingredients.
Step 2: Roll into balls.
Step 3: Fry in olive oil until browned. Let cool on cooling rack or paper towel-lined plate.
NONNIE’S ITALIAN SAUSAGE
4 lbs. Coarsely-ground pork butt (i.e., pork shoulder)
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons paprika
2 teaspoons fennel seed
2 tablespoons hot red pepper flakes (optional)
Sausage casings, soaked in water to soften and remove salt (optional)
Step 1. Mix pork and spices in a bowl.
Step 2. Cover and let sit overnight in the fridge.
Step 3. Stuff into casings. How do you do that? Look it up on YouTube.
Note: Steps 1 and 2 are pieces of cake. Step 3 is a bit of a pain. Plus, it requires special equipment. To be honest (and I’ll deny that I said this), I almost always just buy a good quality Italian sausage from the market when making sauce. I do the same thing with meatballs, much to my mother’s chagrin.
Pusties (aka, pasticciotti) are little pastry tarts filled with custard and baked in a unique fluted tin. It’s a culinary jewel that is maddeningly difficult to find outside of upstate New York. It’s also maddeningly difficult to make at home—which may explain why 87% of all outbound flights from Syracuse Airport contain at least one box of pusties in the overhead bin.
I made up that last statistic, but wouldn’t be shocked if it were true.
You’re probably asking yourself, “What could be so hard about making a custard-filled pastry tart?” Well…several things.
First, the equipment. To make pusties, you need pustie tins. And you won’t find pustie tins in any Walmart.
Then, you need a good recipe. This is no small task. Most people that live in Utica don’t make pusties, because it’s easier to buy them at a local bakery. And most people outside of Utica don’t make pusties because…well, they’ve never heard of them. Much like the Amish, pustie culture tends not to venture far from the ol’ homestead. So finding a decent recipe (i.e., one whose dough doesn’t crumble like a sand castle when touched with a rolling pin) involves either raiding somebody’s grandma’s file cabinet or playing Internet Russian Roulette.
Even with a good recipe in hand, the pustie-making process is laborious, time-consuming, and temperamental. Making the dough, making the custard, lining each tin with dough, filling each tin with custard, capping each tin with another layer of dough—it’s a multi-hour marathon, and that’s *with* helpers.
Then there’s the baking. This is the most frustrating part. Why? Because the top of the pusty is exposed to the oven’s heat…whereas the bottom and sides are shielded by the tin. This means, all too often, that your beautiful pustie—whose top looked so crisp and golden brown when you pulled it from the oven—emerges from the tin a doughy, undercooked tragedy.
Yet all these downsides pale in comparison to a pustie-celibate life. So my wife and I sacrificed many hours and hundreds of calories on a Quixotic quest to crack the pustie code.
And we think we’ve finally cracked it. The recipe is set forth below. If it kills your entire weekend, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
6 c All Purpose Flour
1 t Baking Powder
1 c Lard (broken, cut, or shaved into small pieces)
1 stick (i.e., ½ c) Unsalted Butter (broken, cut, or shaved into small pieces)
2/3 c Light or Dark Brown Sugar
2/3 cup Sugar
¼ c Honey
½ c Water
STEP 1: In a large bowl, add baking powder, lard, butter, and 3 cups flour.
STEP 2: Mix together with your hands, as you would a pie crust.
STEP 3: Add sugars and mix further.
STEP 4: In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, water, and honey. Beat well.
STEP 5: Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients (i.e., the bowl containing the flour, baking powder, lard, and butter). Pour the egg mixture into the center and mix well with hands.
STEP 6: Continue adding flour ½ cup at a time and mix well until your reach the perfect consistency (i.e., not to sticky, yet not too dry/crumbly). You may or may not need all 6 cups of flour.
STEP 7: Knead for a few minutes, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and let rest in refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
NOTE: This makes enough dough for forty (40) pusties (assuming 3.5 inch diameter pusty tin).
(IN THIS CASE, VANILLA)
2 c Whole Milk
1 c Heavy Cream
3 Large Eggs
2/3 c Sugar
3 T Cornstarch
2 t Vanilla Extract
¼ t Nutmeg (freshly grated)
⅛ t Table Salt
STEP 1: Heat milk and cream in medium saucepan over medium-low heat until steaming. Be careful not to let it boil, or you’ll have a mess on your hands.
STEP 2: Whisk together eggs, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla, nutmeg, and salt in bowl.
STEP 3: Whisk steaming milk and cream into egg and cornstarch mixture in slow, steady stream.
STEP 4: Return egg and milk mixture to saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon and scraping bottom of pan.
STEP 5: When custard begins to thicken and clump at the bottom of the saucepan, toss aside the wooden spoon and grab a whisk. Continue whisking the custard (breaking up the clumps at the bottom of the pan) until it thickens to the point that the whisk leaves a “trail” in the custard. Or, stated another way, keep whisking until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and you can draw a line through it with your finger. Be careful not to over-thicken.
STEP 6: Remove from heat, pour into a bowl or Cambro, and cool to room temperature.
NOTE: This will make enough custard for ten (10) pusties.
- For chocolate custard, add ½ c cocao powder at Step 2 and omit nutmeg. Full disclosure: My father commented that he would like a bit more sugar in the chocolate custard.
- For dark chocolate custard, add ½ c dark cocao powder at Step 2 and omit nutmeg.
- For coconut pusties, just stir in a generous hand full of coconut at Step 6. Duh!
- For almond custard, add 2 t almond extract at Step 2 and omit vanilla extract.
- For lemon custard, add 1.5 T fresh lemon juice and 1.5 T grated lemon zest at Step 2 and omit nutmeg.
- For orange custard, add 1.5 T fresh orange juice and 1.5 T grated orange zest at Step 2 and omit nutmeg.
- For ketchup custard, add ½ c ketchup at Step 2 and omit nutmeg. Just kidding, sort of. Don’t be afraid to let your creativity fly. The pustie possibilities are endless…and man does not live on vanilla alone!
Pustie Tins (you can buy these online from Flihan’s)
Pizza or Baking Stone
Nonstick Spray (e.g., Pam)
Flour (for dusting work surface)
Egg yolks (beaten)
Sugar (for sprinkling)
STEP 1: Place pizza stone on middle rack. Heat oven (and stone) at 500F for one hour. Seriously, let that stone heat for the full hour.
STEP 2: Meanwhile (as oven and stone are heating), spray pusty tins with non-stick spray. Do not flour the pustie tin, or my Uncle Sammy will kill you.
STEP 3: Break off little “meatball” of dough. On a lightly floured surface, use rolling pin to roll out dough into a thin round of 1/4 inch thickness.
STEP 4: Place rolled-out dough round into pusty tin. Use thumbs to press dough into bottom and sides of the tin. Remove excess, overhanging dough.
STEP 5: Fill pustie with custard of choice. But don’t overfill it! Leave a half inch or so of breathing room. Both the custard and the dough will plump in the oven, so overfilling will cause the lid (described in Step 6 below) to crack and/or separate from the base.
STEP 6: Roll out another little “meatball” of dough into a thin round. This will be the pustie’s “lid.” Cover pustie top with lid of dough, crimp with fingers to seal, and remove excess, overhanging dough. My grandmother (i.e., “Nonnie“) would place a little “button” of dough in the center of each vanilla pustie’s lid, so that we could distinguish the vanilla ones from the chocolate. Kids today would call that a “life hack.”
STEP 7: Brush top of pustie with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Then, using a paring knife, poke three slashes into the pustie’s lid so that steam can escape during baking.
STEP 8: Repeat Steps 3 through 7 until you’ve prepared enough pusties to fill a baking pan.
STEP 9: When you’re ready to rock, lower the oven temperature to 450F and turn on the convection fan (assuming you have a convection oven).
STEP 10: Cover baking pan full of pusties with aluminum foil and place directly onto heated baking stone. Bake for approximately 5 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20 minutes, until the sides and bottoms of the pusties are golden brown. Listen to me, people! There’s nothing worse than a doughy, undercooked pustie. Well, actually…a hot dog baked into a chocolate brownie is worse. But you catch my drift. A lot of people screw up perfectly good pusties by removing them from the oven too soon. We know this from experience. You can’t judge a pustie’s doneness by the color of the lid. The lid will brown well before the bottom and sides, so don’t freak out. Those pusties need to stay in the oven until the bottom and sides are browned.
STEP 11: Let cool and remove from tins. Because, you know…you can’t eat the tins.
As with all recipes on this website, this one will be subject to a continuous improvement process. We’ll continue tinkering with this recipe until it becomes 100% idiot-proof. Updates to the original post will be identified below.
We’d welcome critiques or suggestions from you, as well.
UPDATE (March 28, 2016): Step 10 of The Assembly originally read (in part) as follows: “Place baking pan full of pusties directly onto heated baking stone. Bake for approximately 20 minutes in the convection oven, until the sides and bottom of pusties are golden brown.” We found, however, that the pusties needed an additional 5 minutes of baking time in order to properly brown the bottom and sides. Covering with foil for the initial 5 minutes prevents the lids from scorching.
But amongst all of Utica’s culinary jewels, my favorite—by far—is Tomato Pie.
What’s Utica Tomato Pie? Well, it’s not a pie—at least, not in the “post-Thanksgiving dinner” sense. It’s not a quiche. And, as any Utican will insist, it’s not a freakin’ pizza!!!
Arguably, it’s “pizza-like”—in the same way that, arguably, a chimpanzee is “human-like.” But Tomato Pie, like humans, is definitely the superior species.
The base of Utica Tomato Pie is a thick, soft, savory-cakey crust. Some compare it to focaccia. Others, to Sicilian pizza. But it bears no resemblance to the chewy, bread-like crust of a Neopolitan pizza, or the crispy cracker of a US thin-crust pizza.
Tomato Pie is topped with a thick, sweet, slightly chunky, slightly acidic tomato sauce. The sauce is dusted with grated Pecorino Romano cheese and a light sprinkling of dried oregano. It’s then baked in a shallow rectangular pan, cut into squares, and served at room temperature—preferably, with a pint of Saranac on the side.
That’s it! No mozzarella. No pepperoni. And, definitely…no triangles!
If you live in (or visit) Utica, make a bee-line to Roma Sausage & Deli, Holland Farms, O’Scugnizzo’s, or Daniele’s for a box of the real thing. But if you’re not in Utica, then life gets complicated.
Why? Because Tomato Pie is difficult to find outside of Utica. It’s even more difficult to find outside of upstate New York. And many a home cook has cried a river trying to replicate the beast at home.
But alas, Gentle Eater, your long, nasty nightmare of frustration and deprivation is over—because I have perfected the recipe for making a spot-on Utica Tomato Pie at home.
The recipe is listed below. I hope youse freakin’ like it.
2.25 cups all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur unbleached)
2 cups semolina flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon yeast (I use Fleischmann’s ActiveDry Original)
1.50 – 1.75 cups ice water
3 tablespoons EVOO
2.25 teaspoons salt
STEP 1: Using Kitchen-Aid mixer fitted with dough hook, mix all-purpose flour, semolina flour, sugar, and yeast on low speed until combined.
STEP 2: With machine running on low speed, slowly add oil and enough ice water until dough forms and no dry flour remains, approximately 1 to 2 minutes.
STEP 3: Cover mixer bowl with plastic wrap and let dough stand for 10 minutes.
STEP 4: Add salt to dough and mix on medium speed until dough forms satiny, sticky ball that clears sides of bowl, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.
STEP 5: Remove dough from bowl and knead briefly on lightly floured counter until smooth, about 1 minute.
STEP 6: Shape dough into tight ball and place in large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 48 hours.
6 fresh Roma or Plum tomatoes
28 oz can of Crushed Tomato
6 oz can of Tomato Paste
3 garlic cloves (put through a garlic press)
0.25 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3.5 tablespoons sugar
Salt to taste
STEP 1: Pre-heat oven to 425F.
STEP 2: Place fresh tomatoes on baking pan. Drizzle with EVOO, salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes.
STEP 3: While tomatoes are roasting, combine other ingredients in a sauce pan and let simmer on stove top until thickened.
STEP 4: Coarsely chop the roasted tomatoes (so that no large pieces remain) and add to sauce pan.
NOTE: I typically make the sauce in advance, and let it sit covered in the fridge for a day or two. I don’t know if this improves the sauce, but why tamper with greatness?
17 x 11 inch rectangular baking sheet
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pecorino Romano Cheese
STEP 1: Spray baking sheet (including rim) with vegetable oil spray, then coat bottom of baking sheet with EVOO.
STEP 2: Remove dough from fridge and transfer to lightly floured counter. Lightly flour top of dough and gently press into rectangle.
STEP 3: Using rolling pin, gently roll dough into 17 x 11 inch rectangle. Transfer dough to baking sheet, gently stretching dough into corners as needed.
STEP 4: Rub top of dough with EVOO and cover with sheet of plastic wrap. Let stand in a warm place for 90 minutes. I typically place the pan on the stovetop while the oven is heating (see Step 5 below).
STEP 5: One hour before baking, place baking stone on middle rack and heat oven to 500F.
STEP 6: Remove plastic wrap. Ladle sauce onto the Pie, then use the back of the ladle to spread it evenly.
STEP 7: Grate Pecorino Romano evenly over the sauce.
STEP 8: Using fingers, lightly sprinkle oregano over the sauce. Don’t go crazy with the oregano, or you’ll taste it until Tuesday.
STEP 9: Reduce oven temperature to 450F. Place baking sheet onto the stone. Bake 10 minutes, rotate baking sheet 180 degrees, then bake another 10 minutes (until bottom crust is evenly browned).
STEP 10: Remove baking sheet from oven. Transfer Tomato Pie to wire cooling rack.
STEP 11: When cooled, cut Tomato Pie into squares.
STEP 12: Post on Facebook, and place bets on which relative arrives at your doorstep first. Pity the fools that arrive too late.
UPDATE: Step 4 of “The Sauce” originally read as follows: “Cut the roasted tomatoes in half, add to sauce pan, and mash tomatoes with wooden spoon until no large pieces remain.” The revision above works just as well, with less effort.
Frances was born in Utica in 1919. For those of you who might be math-challenged, that was almost 100 years ago.
Her parents, Angelo Cecere and Anna Agrusti, were born in the city of Alberbello in the Italy’s Puglia region—also known as “the heel.” Alberobello is an architecturally unique, UNESCO World Heritage site. It is famous for its white-washed buildings with cone-shaped “trulli” roofs, its orrechiette pasta, and its vegetable-heavy regional cuisine. Alberobello is a popular tourist destination for Europeans with good taste—and a popular destination for our family.
Angelo and Anna immigrated to the US. We’re not exactly sure when, but it predated the iPhone.
Fran was the third of four sisters—Mae, Molly, and Jo. We often refer to them as the “Giggle Sisters.” Giggling is what they did when they were together. They giggled at parties. They giggled on the phone. They even giggled during the final scene of Old Yeller.
She had a younger brother, Joe, who was also giggly—although, unlike the sisters, Uncle Joe’s giggles usually came on the heels of a dirty joke.
Rounding out the Ceceres was Uncle Frank. Not so giggly, but a handsome, quietly cheerful guy that was an artist of some renown in Upstate NY.
Fran married my father, Cataldo (aka, “Sam”…aka, “Gates”) Oliva in 1942. Dad was decidedly NOT giggly. His schtick was more of a razor-sharp, bone-dry, biting sarcasm—a trait that, for better or worse, has been inherited by some.
Fran was Yin to Sam’s Yang, but they made it work. They were married for 65 years, had three children, 8 grandchildren, too many great grandchildren to count on a normal person’s fingers and toes, and 2 great-great grandchildren.
When people reflect on my mother, she evokes many different memories. But the only memories that matter are those of my son…because I strong-armed him into writing this eulogy.
When my son thinks of his Nonnie, he thinks of her cooking. I suspect that many of you think the same.
The smells and flavors that came from her kitchen defined our family. Truly, the flavor, essence, and identity of the Oliva, DeTraglia, Gianfrancesco, Lowell, Sizemore, Occhipinti, and Weigand families can be reduced to—and is epitomized by—a spoonful of my mother’s tomatoey, meat-heavy Macaroni Sauce.
When my son was 20, he had a revelation: “Someday, Nonnie will die.” Ok…so his estimate was off by almost 30 years, but let’s not split hairs.
So he sat down with her and said, “Explain to me how you make all this stuff.”
She immediately began rattling off a list of ingredients. “You add a little parsley. Then toss in some cheese. A smidge of this…a handful of that.”
Now, this sort of abstract explanation does not sit well with a 20 year old’s less-than-fully-formed brain.
“Wait, wait!” he said. “When you say ‘Add a little parsley’… how much parsley should I add?”
She looked at him as if he had just asked Abraham Lincoln, “So…what do you do for a living?”
Then she did what all truly great cooks do. She said, “How much parsley? I don’t know…just taste it.”
After a few more minutes of debating the merits of Art vs. Science, my mother said, “Let me play around in the kitchen and I’ll get back to you.”
A few weeks later, my son received a package containing a small stack of hand-written index cards. They were her recipes, written in the language of “teaspoons and tablespoons.”
Each person was put on earth for a purpose. My son’s purpose was to preserve my mother’s best recipes for posterity. Which he did…with 30 years to spare.
Her recipes have been posted to a website. They’ve been accessed, shared, and used by people around the world. They’ve been published in the “Taste of Utica Cookbook,” by Joe Mezzanini and Jeanann Murphy (available on Lulu.com).
And…believe it or not…if you Google the words “pusty recipe,” the first or second link listed is my mother’s pusty recipe.
The death of a loved one is never a happy occasion, except to the extent that it brings reunion, reconciliation, and remembrance. On behalf of myself and my family, we thank you for coming and celebrating my mother’s long, giggly, gourmet life.
We no longer can see or hear her, but we—and many others throughout the world—will continue to taste her for years to come.
After a giggly, gourmet, ninety-six-ish year journey, my grandmother (“Nonnie”) has taken a seat at that great macaroni house in the sky.
When a family member dies, I’m usually asked to write a eulogy. It’s a task that, quite frankly, I’d be happy to do without.
But in Nonnie’s case, the eulogy was easy. I’ve been writing it for the past decade.
You’ll find it HERE.
Buon appetito, and save room for the pusties.
There are two kinds of people in this world: (a) Those that know and understand Aldi, and (b) Those that don’t, but make assumptions about it.
Aldi, of course, is the German-based, low-cost, low-frills supermarket chain that has been expanding like a late July brush fire around the world and across the US. It stokes passionate feelings on both sides of the spectrum.
People that have never set foot inside an Aldi tend to make bold assumptions—the most prevalent of which is that each Aldi resembles the East Berlin supermarket that I visited in 1988.
That pre-unification, East Berlin supermarket epitomized the term “Fifty Shades of Gray”—but with none of its sexiness. The supermarket had gray walls. Gray floors. A gray ceiling. On its gray shelves were gray cans sporting gray labels. Those labels said things like “Meat,” “Gruel,” or “Arguably, a Vegetable.” The store had no natural light. No color. No joy. The only fresh products I recall seeing were the ones scurrying underfoot across the floor.
This bold assumption, Comrades, is wrong. Aldi provides a bright, attractive, exceedingly pleasant, uber-efficient supermarket experience. I know this, because I’ve been shopping there for years. So let me provide some “Aldi Truths” to bring the naysayers out of the Cold War.
- GIVE THEM NO QUARTER! No, wait! Actually, you’ll need a quarter. Aldi shopping carts are chained together in a corral. To take a cart, you must first insert a quarter in order to unlock it. But don’t worry, because you’ll get your damn quarter back when you return the cart. And you WILL return the cart. Why? Because—odd as it may seem—the prospect of forfeiting 25 cents provides enough motivation to dissuade even the most lazy Aldi shopper from abandoning his cart in the parking lot…within striking distance of my new Volvo. And in the unlikely event that a cart is abandoned, another Aldi shopper will pounce immediately and pocket a two-bits windfall. No abandoned carts means there’s no need for Aldi to hire extra staff to retrieve them. This keeps Aldi’s staffing needs lean and its overhead costs low.
- YOU’LL SAVE A BUNDLE. According to a 2011 New York Times article, analysts estimate that Aldi prices are 20 percent lower than those of competitors like Wal-Mart. Aldi officials claim that the savings are closer to 45 percent. I don’t know which figure is correct, but I do know this. Before becoming an Aldi convert, I did my grocery shopping at Sam’s Club—where I would typically spend $240 per week to feed my family of six. My grocery bills at Aldi now range from $100 to $140 per week. You do the math. You just might save enough money to buy a new Volvo.
- THE SELECTION IS SMALL, BUT IT’S BIG ENOUGH. A typical Aldi carries approximately 1,500 popular, high-turnover items. Competing large supermarkets may carry 25,000 items. A superstore, 100,000! So…you won’t find 16 different brands of peanut butter at Aldi, or 46 colors and textures of toilet paper. But who needs a smorgasbord of toilet paper?! You may think that you do, but you don’t. You really don’t. I distinctly remember the first time I entered an Aldi. I looked around and thought, “Jesus! This joint will barely make a dent in my shopping list.” But by the time I rolled into the check-out register, I had knocked-off 90% of my list. Aldi also carries a nice selection of organic products, gluten-free items, and fresh meats and produce. You’ll often find a smattering of interesting German imports, like krauts, marzipan cakes, and funky sausages. And as if that weren’t enough, Aldi frequently surprises (and delights!) by offering limited term specialty items. Last week, two lobster tails (for $12!) appeared in the freezer aisle. The week before, I noticed the debut of vegetarian samosas. So, fear not, Gentle Eater…for shopping at Aldi will not result in death from either malnutrition or boredom.
- THE PRODUCTS TRULY ARE GOOD QUALITY. 95% of the products that Aldi offers are private labelled. This, admittedly, takes some getting used to. But the quality of those products is top-notch. I’ve eaten my way across the store and back, and (quite honestly) have found only one product that I didn’t like—the organic peanut butter…it needs more salt! And, again, private-labelling means that low-to-no marketing costs are passed-on to the consumer. Aldi is a super-secretive organization, but I suspect that many of their products are contract manufactured by the same companies that make the major, highly-marketed brands that we know and love. Why do I think this? Because my kids never complain that they are eating private labelled Aldi products. To be honest, I don’t think they even notice.
- WHAT’S WITH ALL THE BAR CODES? Aldi’s product packaging is peppered with multiple, long bar codes. I’m talking obnoxiously long bar codes on all (or nearly all) sides. This is to increase check-out speed. These bar codes on growth hormones allow Aldi cashiers to whiz product off the belt, past the scanner, and into the cart at Mach 3 without ever missing a beat. Which leads us to…
- THE CHECK-OUT PROTOCOL. There is a check-out protocol at Aldi. And while it’s not as intimidating as ordering a bowl of Mulligatawny from the Soup Nazi, it is taken seriously by employees and customers alike. First, you don’t dally while placing the contents of your cart onto the check-out conveyer belt. Why? Because once the Aldi cashier grabs the first of your items from the belt, you will enter a time warp. An Aldi cashier will grab, swipe, and dump $100 worth of groceries into your cart faster than it takes you to pull the debit card (Note: Aldi doesn’t take credit cards) from your wallet. Notice that I said he will dump the groceries into *your* cart. This, also, is part of the check-out protocol. Once you’ve unloaded your items onto the belt, you’ll push your empty cart to the end of the counter—where the cashier will either maneuver it around to abut the end of the counter, or he will move it aside because he has already grabbed and positioned the last customer’s cart. He does this because…
- THERE IS NO BAGGING AT THE REGISTER! No, no, no! The cashier won’t bag your groceries at the register. A pimply-faced, 17 year old clerk won’t bag your groceries at the register. And you won’t bag your groceries at the register. What you *will* do, however, is take your receipt and proceed to “The Shelf!”
- ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY SHELF! As you leave the check-out lane, you will encounter a deep, waist-high shelf running the length of the wall leading to the exit door. This is where you will bag your cart full of disheveled, freshly paid-for groceries. Again, this is done for purposes of efficiency. Bagging groceries at the register is a common (and annoying!) bottleneck in the typical supermarket machine. Aldi doesn’t do bottlenecks. Plus, you probably needed the exercise. There’s one more thing that you need to know about bagging groceries at Aldi…
- BRING YOUR OWN BAGS! That’s right. Aldi doesn’t give out bags. You’re free to grab an empty box or carton if you find one lying around, but most Aldi shoppers come armed with a stack of eco-friendly, re-usable nylon bags for this purpose. Those bags often sport a Trader Joe’s logo, which is a bit ironic—since Trader Joe’s was founded by the brother of Aldi’s founder.
[Authors Note: Despite my clear passion for Aldi (and the fact that I live in the town where it is headquartered), please be advised that I don’t work for Aldi. Although…that’s certainly not for lack of trying. 😉 ]